Who will become the first champion as the No. 1 club in the East Asia?
J. League champion Jubilo Iwata will host South Korean K. League champion Seongnam Illhwa Chunma in the opening match of the inaugural A3 Mazda Champions Cup on Sunday at National Stadium in Tokyo, followed by the meeting between Chinese C. League champion Dalian Shide and the Nabisco Cup winning Kashima Antlers, who won the extra spot awarded to the host nation in the tournament.
Jubilo, which clinched its third league title after sweeping the first and second stages for the first time ever in the J. League, will take off on its first flight with new manager Masaaki Yanagishita.
Iwata saw J. League MVP and Golden Boot winner Naohiro Takahara off to German club Hamburger SV early last month, but the J. League champs still have a plenty of talented and experienced players in midfielders Hiroshi Nanami, Toshiya Fujita and Toshihiro Hattori as well as inspiring striker Masashi Nakayama.
Teaming up with Nakayama in place of Takahara has been battled hard by Norihiro Nishi, Brazilian Gral and young Yasumasa Nishino.
For the meeting with J. League sides, Seongnam could take advantage of many of its players’ experience in having played in the J. League.
The South Korean powerhouse has former Cerezo Osaka midfielder Yoon Jong Hwan, former Vissel Kobe striker Kim Do Hoon, former JEF United Ichihara forward Kim Dae Eui and Yugoslav forward Sasa Drakulic, formerly of Kashiwa Reysol.
The five-time K. League champions recently recruited Croatian defender Jasenko Sabitovic from Pohang Steelers and Russian midfielder Denis Laktionov from Suwon Samsung as part of its 1.5 billion yen spending, reportedly a K. League record, for the coming season.
Seven-time champion Dalian has defended its league title for the last three years under the guidance of former Red Star and Malta manager Milorad Kosanovic.
Dalian has veteran striker Hao Haidong, his national teammate An Qi in goal, Bulgarian international forward Zoran Jankovic and Yugoslav midfielder Perica Ognjenovi. Young midfielder Wang Sheng, a China U-22 squad member, scored twice against Brazil in China’s 3-2 loss at the Qatar international tournament in January.
Defender Zhang Enhua, formerly of English first division club Grimsby Town, will miss the tournament because of injury. But the Chinese side is known for its solid defense.
Kashima has won nine titles over the last 10 seasons, five of which were brought by manager Toninho Cerezo. The Brazilian made a treble of winning the league, the Nabisco Cup and the Emperor’s Cup in his first season at Kashima in 2000.
But the club’s trophy showcase is still missing an Asian title, and Kashima is determined to make it this time.
The Antlers employed Japan defender Go Oiwa from archrival Jubilo, to combine with veteran center-back Yutaka Akita. Brazilian midfielder Fernando joined from Vitoria to team up with his countryman forward Euller.
Midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara and goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata showed improvement in their game last season. Their national teammate striker Atsushi Yanagisawa can be a threat if he’s in form.
A problem for Kashima could be the fact that the four-time J. League champion did not have enough time in the offseason to rest and recover after playing all the way through to the Emperor’s Cup final on Jan. 1.
The teams will play in a round-robin format over three days. The winner will pocket a prize of $400,000.
The fixtures are: Feb. 16, Iwata vs. Seongnam, Dalian vs. Kashima; Feb. 19, Seongnam vs. Dalian, Iwata vs. Kashima; Feb. 22, Kashima vs. Seongnam, Dalian vs. Iwata — all at National Stadium.
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